We all think our children are special. But how does it feel when you realise your daughter just isn’t very bright? One disappointed mother tells her story.
I didn’t realise how important being bright was to me until I had a daughter who wasn’t. I was brought up by searingly intelligent parents, both complicated, funny, intellectual. They bonded over cryptic crosswords and were contemptuous of tabloid-reading mouth-breathers.
I grew up believing that having an incisive wit and split-second recall of arcane facts is more important than being kind or compassionate.
If someone was bright, I warmed to them. If not, I yawned. I assumed that my child would share my feelings. No, I assumed that she would be like me.
The first signs were good. In the womb, Bella was constantly kicking and hiccupping, as if she yearned to be out there, engaging in a lively debate. And when she arrived she was restless, with a nervous energy that was alarming. My father declared her “very alert” and I glowed with pride.
As she entered the toddler years, this agitated, highly emotional baby didn’t show signs of developing the cerebral abilities you’d connect with being alert. She was slow to talk; while other children could string together three words – “Wan go slide” – Bella would just utter “slide”.
All the other milestones found her trailing. She’d reach them eventually, months behind her contemporaries.
It’s not helpful to compare, I’d tell myself. Celebrate her for herself. But when you’re a new parent, it’s impossible not to measure your child against others.
I searched for reasons. She had a long and traumatic birth – had it left her with slight brain damage? Did all that crying in the first year frazzle her synapses?
I grew weary of competitive mums with their “stealth boasting”. “I’m so cross with Saffron,” one said. “She’s taught herself all her letters – she’ll be so bored at school.” I’d get a sick feeling when even the sweetest of friends would mention her child’s progress, as I hated having to reply that, “No, Bella isn’t doing that yet”.
I felt protective of Bella – she didn’t know she wasn’t measuring up – but also disappointed. I desperately wanted her to be as good as, if not better than, her friends.
I’d try to “hot-house” her with educational toys, but she found anything but the most basic games baffling. She grew edgy around anything challenging such as jigsaws – she just couldn’t grasp them.
When she started in infants, I was hoping that somehow things would just click for her; that she would respond to her teacher differently from how she responded to me.
Bella came home with a workbook. We’d go through it together, and she’d carefully draw around the letters I’d outlined in dots for her. But turn the page and the lesson would vanish from her mind.
By the end of the school year, the alphabet was still a meaningless set of squiggles. I wondered about dyslexia, but her teacher was unconcerned. “She’s one of the youngest in the class. Don’t worry – she’ll catch up,” she said. I felt that she didn’t care.
Her dad’s spelling is dubious and his memory is laughable. It must be his fault, I reasoned.
He wasn’t concerned, saying that he needed extra help at school, but seeing as he went on to university and into a profession, it didn’t affect him in the long term.
But a new school year brought a new teacher, one who was less laid-back. She had noticed that Bella often daydreamed, and wondered if there was an underlying cause.
I was heartened by her hands-on approach, and agreed to have Bella’s eyes and hearing tested. Both tests came back normal. But I already knew her learning delay wasn’t due to her eyesight or hearing. It was about cognition.
By the time she was six, she was far behind her classmates and had developed a block about anything academic, because it was associated with stress and failure.
Being a good, middle-class mum, I didn’t give up. I researched different approaches, turned each exercise into a game, used reward charts and bribery. But ultimately she was resistant to reading and would do anything to avoid it, including sliding off the chair like an eel.
An educational psychologist was called in at school, and declared that although Bella was behind, she was still progressing, just at her own pace.
I voiced my concern to Bella’s teacher that if she was dyslexic, it seemed a long time to have to endure without any support, but she thought differently.
She wasn’t showing the classic characteristics of it and anyway, “It may just be that Bella’s talents lie elsewhere. Just because you are academic doesn’t mean she will be.”
Bella looked like me, I so wanted her to be a mini-me, and it was deeply ingrained in me that being clever was important. But while I felt defensive on behalf of Bella, shamefully, I also wanted to distance myself from her, to splutter that I had learned to read before school; I love reading, I’m a writer. It wasn’t my fault.
But there was worse to come. All this time I had been stewing in my own frustration I had been comforted by the fact that she was oblivious to it. But then I realised that she was aware of it.
One ray of hope, though, is that she now sees the point in doing her homework and has discovered an inner resolve. I left her last parents’ evening feeling optimistic. She’s on the brink of turning a corner, the teacher said.
Maybe she will, maybe she won’t. I have set so much store on being clever that it may take a while for me to come to terms with this, but it’s a lesson I need to learn.